It is a question as old as Parliament: do ‘gaffe-prone’ politicians act as light relief from the harshness of politics, or are they an embarrassment to the country they represent?
Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, has been the source of criticism this week for quoting – or, rather, misquoting – Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Mandalay’ in a temple in Myanmar. This poem, explicitly supportive of the British Empire, recited in a once-British colony, was put to an end by the tense-looking British ambassador, who accompanied Johnson on the visit and warned him that it was “not appropriate” to remind their hosts of British rule.
A few days ago, Johnson said that the city of Sirte in Libya could be like Dubai, once “the dead bodies” are removed. Libya was once under British administration; and, more recently, the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, was claimed to be partly responsible for abandoning Libya after Gaddafi’s defeat, which led to its descent into civil war.
Are these instances merely slips of Johnson’s bumbling tongue, merely quips to add to his list of uncomfortable episodes, or has Johnson unconsciously called into question the legacy of the British Empire, positing his role as Foreign Secretary as one presiding over a country that refuses to accept its history of colonial aggression?
Britain has a tricky relationship with Empire. The British Museum in London is heralded as cultivating fine British art and history, but many of these items were stolen from colonised countries.
To solidify the British presence in India, for example, Indian art and cultural artefacts were shipped to London and displayed for their beauty, while the Indian public had few democratic rights and were subject to aggression and massacres at the hand of the British elite, including at Jallianwala Bagh.
This is just once example of Britain’s neglect of empire, but it follows a wider theme of ignorance. In schools, British history is taught in GCSE and Higher syllabuses and filled with kings and queens, world war history and the NHS. But lacking is the British Empire, its expansion and colonisation. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a text canonised and widely studied at university level. The reluctance of some academics to admit the racist undertones which fuel it, however, puts students further in the dark when it comes to Empire.
The absence of British colonialism from the UK curriculum has permeated politics. In the EU Referendum last year, images of a truly Great Britain prevailed, promises to ‘take back control’ spoke louder than left-wing whispers, and a mythologised history of Britain came to the forefront of the national agenda. In doing so, perceptions of Britain as ‘Great’, ensured that 52 per cent of the country voted Leave. The Leave campaign, by weaving these images together, controlled the public understanding of British history without explaining the reality of our colonial past. Recently, UKIP changed its logo to a lion: not typically a British animal, but symbolising Britain’s strength. It is safe to say that while Empire itself isn’t valourised here, the self-awareness of British dominance is.
Johnson, in misquoting an imperialist poem in a former British colony, showed that the lasting remnants of the British Empire are still affecting UK foreign policy.
This unawareness reflects Britain’s refusal to recognise the gravity of the crimes it committed, and is a shocking illustration of the effect that politicians such as Johnson truly have upon our international image.
Image: Think London via Flickr